Hugh Bailey: In which Greenwich leaders tell the rest of us what we're doing wrong

Photo of Hugh Bailey
Pedestrians cross the Greenwich Avenue at its intersection with Arch Street last year in Greenwich.

Pedestrians cross the Greenwich Avenue at its intersection with Arch Street last year in Greenwich.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

Let’s have a little sympathy for Greenwich.

It’s not the most obvious candidate for compassion, what with its status among the most sought-after addresses on the planet.

Still, the debate over housing equity in Connecticut has put the state’s extreme southwest in a poor light — unfairly, local leaders say.

We can grant those leaders have a germ of a point; Greenwich is not all that its detractors imagine it to be. Compared to some neighbors, the town has surprising diversity, including in its public schools. And there’s a wider variety of housing stock than other suburbs.

But whatever generosity the rest of the state might be tempted to extend has been tested by those leaders’ response to potential law changes, specifically regarding zoning.

Greenwich, these officials say, is doing fine on its own, and everyone else is just jealous.

A focus by big-city mayors on state policies that favor suburbs is just “political sleight of hand” meant to “divert attention from their problems as Democratic-run large cities to an imagined one — well-run, generally Republican communities.” That’s the view of Dan Quigley, chairman of the Republican Town Committee in Greenwich.

He’s saying, it’s not our fault you don’t know what you’re doing. Why doesn’t New Haven just run things like Greenwich does?

First Selectman Fred Camillo, also a Republican, echoed the complaints. He acknowledged the worthiness of social equity and affordable housing, but said they should be accomplished through “local authorities that are cognizant of their respective community needs,” not via state mandates.

In other words, don’t change anything. But if what we’re doing isn’t achieving those supposedly worthy goals, how could more of the same be an answer?

Greenwich has a variety of selling points, including a stunningly low mill rate of 11.59 percent. When the average home is worth more than $1.4 million, you can get away with such numbers. New Haven’s mill rate, meanwhile, is 43.88. But there are many factors that go into those numbers, which Greenwich leaders are happy to elide.

In almost every way imaginable, Greenwich stands alone. A list of the richest towns in America includes some Silicon Valley suburbs and tucked-away enclaves, most with populations of 15,000 or less. Greenwich has 62,000 people.

It got where it is by being blessed with every advantage a community could ask for, helped by unquestionably exclusionary policies. For all the complaints about taxes, they’re lower and simpler than in neighboring Westchester County.

Connecticut cities, meanwhile, have lost nearly everything in the past 50 years that helped them prosper as factories closed and industry fled, while still being asked to serve as their region’s focal points for government, health care and social services, none of which are taxable. There have been self-inflicted wounds along the way, but the crisis in Connecticut cities is one that’s been replicated across the country.

So we’re left with a situation where cities’ jobs are sent away at the direction of the financial sector in search of the best return on investment, a sector that happens to have a major concentration in Greenwich. Meanwhile, the open-air country club that is Greenwich looks down its nose at the cities while asking whatever happened to pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.

Zoning aside, this is a tough time for Greenwich Republicans. The town is now regularly sending Democrats to the state Legislature, and the Greenwich model of a George H.W. Bush-style GOP is dead and gone. Greenwich Republicans are staring into the face of their own obsolescence. No wonder they’re in a bad mood.

Fairfield County likes to complain about being the state’s ATM, and it’s true an outsize percentage of state revenue comes from just a few towns. But it’s not like that’s an accident. Their wealth has been protected by generations of policies geared toward keeping their money in and everything else out. Now, when that model is questioned, they’re lashing out.

Whether they like it or not, change is coming to Connecticut’s suburbs. It might happen via state law, or it could come from their own electorates. The only question is how loudly they’ll complain along the way.

Hugh Bailey is editorial page editor of the New Haven Register and Connecticut Post. He can be reached at hbailey@hearstmediact.com.